Must a contract be interpreted in context?

For example, if a lease contract has an item which is intended from keeping the tenants from attacking/fighting each other or the landlord, what if the activity happens in a location that has nothing to do with the contract, like a boxing gym?

For example, imagine the contract says, "Tenants may not engage in activities that my harm other tenants, the landlord, or guests."

What if a tenant trains at the same boxing gym as the landlord? What if a tenant has a guest over and another tenant beats up that guest on the street? Would either of these be a violation of the lease contract?

  • What is “may harm”? If I prepare food for you, it may harm you. If I do CPR/first-aid on you, it may harm you. If I say hello then it may harm you. So I would be happy as the 2nd party to accept that the author intended to say “intended to cause harm”. Now I can box the land lord on site, if we both agree, and I do it in sport, maybe to hurt, but not intending to harm. If I intend to cause harm, then I am guilty of assault, even in the boxing ring (may me exceptions in knock out competitions, I do not know). The more I think about this the more I think it says nothing. (not a lawyer) Jan 9 '16 at 15:52

The root of the question is what was agreed to. The written contract is just evidence of that agreement. Both plain meaning and context can be used to help interpret that written evidence.

You say that what happens in a boxing gym "has nothing to do with the contract". If everyone agrees that is the case, then the tenants and the landlord training at a boxing gym is not related to the lease.

Beating up a recent guest on the street outside the house might be a violation of the lease if the agreement prohibited fighting guests in or near the house. In some jurisdictions, if the language of the written contract is unambiguous, it doesn't matter what people thought they were agreeing to. If anyone is not sure, they can ask the others what exactly was meant to be prohibited and they can work together to re-write the sentence so that it is clear evidence of what they agreed to.

  • When it comes to interpreting the contract in court, is it based on what the majority believes? For example it is possible that even after a contract was agreed on and signed, the parties really had interpreted it differently. For example someone may argue "I waited for the guest to be out of the house before I beet him up so that clearly complies with the contract". Jan 6 '16 at 19:51
  • There are many canons to aid in interpretation of a contract. This document explains some of these. I can easily imagine a court finding that your hypothetical clause is not ambiguous, that "guest" means a person who was invited into the house and they don't cease to be a "guest" simply because they have stepped outside of the house or off of the literal extent of the property.
    – user3851
    Jan 6 '16 at 20:18
  • I guess my point/question is, when the courts find a particular interpretation of a contract, they are doing just that, the court doesn't actually care how one of the parties may have interpreted it (even if the party did state honestly how they thought the interpretation was meant). Jan 6 '16 at 23:56

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